Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment An Xiao’s series which explores the recent history and parameters of Social Media Art. Part One appeared on Wednesday and Part Two appeared on Wednesday.
Digital Gets Physical … On November 2, 2009, at 4:12 pm, I was having a late lunch in Santa Monica at Cafe Crepe, just a few blocks from the beach. I remember it was pretty good, and it was a perfect day for eating outside and people watching. But if it weren’t for an application called Foursquare, which allows me to “check in” from a physical location and tell all my friends, I’d never have remembered when exactly I was there.
At the time, Foursquare was exclusive to major American cities, but a couple months later, it would open up the floodgates to checking in anywhere in the world. Little more than a year since it was founded, it boasts over a million users, a milestone that took two years for Twitter to achieve.
Foursquare is currently a popular example of an emerging trend toward seamlessly blending the online and offline worlds. As I write this, more and more sites are featuring geolocation services made possible by smartphones equipped with GPS. Other, online/offline technologies have included the ever-popular Zipcar, which connects its cars with the web (and, recently, iPhones) using RFID; Metro Paris Subway, the first smartphone app to utilize augmented reality to superimpose digital data onto real world images; and M-Pesa, which allows real-world, person-to-person transactions of money via SMS.
As Frog design Creative Director Adam Richardson noted in an influential talk he gave at the most recent Next Web Conference, the Internet until recently has been like the railroad, which has forced us to adapt to its rules. In the coming years, it will be more like cars, which adapt to us and our way of life.
In other words, the digital is getting physical.
Blending the Rules
Recently, more and more artists using social media have placed their art as much in online space as in physical space, presenting a vision of social media art more closely aligned with how we use mainstream social media in general — as an extension of our lives, rather than a separate practice. And interestingly, more social media artists today are surrendering a portion of their creative will to the whims of the crowd, making their practices significantly more social.
When Nic Rad gave away 99 portraits of well-known New York media personalities, like Clay Shirky and Gillian Reagan, at his gallery show People Matter, he says he wanted to respond to the Internet’s current culture of free. Presented in Rare Gallery, his portraits were originally sourced by him, but soon were littered with “gamers,” (i.e., those who had used blogs, tweets, emails and other social methods to convince him to paint their portrait instead). At the same time, Rad engaged fans of his work to argue for why they deserve a particular piece for free (I made my own argument for the portrait of @MuseumNerd). In so doing, he worked to make the entire art process, from creation to sales, a social and socially-driven experience.
In the performance arena, Man Bartlett performed 24h #BestNonBuy, in which he spent 24 hours in the Union Square Best Buy (which, you might guess, is always open), tweeting about his experience but not purchasing anything. New Yorkers were encouraged to stop by to see him in action, but anyone could participate by following his Twitter feed. Since then, Bartlett’s quickly become a social media microstar, with performances almost every month situated in New York City but made interactive online, including “#24hOpen”, tweeted during Michael Asher’s 2010 Whitney Biennial event, and #24hEcho, which received a reported 1,000 online visitors (as a very rough point of comparison, 1,400 photos of sitters have been posted to the Abramović Flickr, illustrating how much more personalized interaction an Internet performance can have).
And out West, appropriately set in Los Angeles, Lauren McCarthy launched “Script,” where she gave control of each day of her life to the whims of her Internet followers. Using a wiki-style format, visitors could anonymously edit the script by adding or deleting lines. Though little documentation exists of her performances outside of a few snapshots and the archived scripts, the concept of the crowd-sourced life resonates with current Internet trends: our real-world lives are increasingly being defined not only by technology but also by who’s on the other end of that technology.
These artists’ explorations interest me because of how they seamlessly blend online and offline; I wasn’t physically present for most of their shows, and yet I feel like I was there all along. Further, and perhaps more importantly, I felt like I had some level of influence in the ultimate result of their creative actions: to varying degrees of success, each artist made their social media work social.
A Defining Moment
Defining any form of art, especially while it’s still emerging, is difficult at best and harmfully restrictive at worst. The emergence of any new medium gives artists a new playground with which to work, but it can often take years before it becomes clear which pieces are the true gems that helped define a new art form and which were simply trends of the moment.
Those who follow Hyperallergic will know that I recently convened a roundtable discussion of social media artists to try to understand this emerging field. They included individual artists — Man Bartlett, Lauren McCarthy, Nina Meledandri, Christi Nielsen, Nic Rad — whose work had caught my eye, and three members of @Platea — Jonny Gray, Joanie San Chirico, and Jennifer Ng. Appropriately, we held the chat on Facebook, on Hyperallergic’s discussion boards.
As I struggled to define social media art, Nic Rad told me succinctly: “Social media art is art done on social media.” This is right. But working with him and the above artists, I’ve settled upon four helpful rules of thumb for evaluating a deceptively-simple practice.
1. The web plays a key role not just in the marketing or sourcing of the art but the *expression* of the art. The art must be adapted to the device or platform; it has to respond specifically to the online space. There’s a small but important semantic difference between art on Twitter and Twitter art. The former suggests the traditions of art moved into Twitter, while the latter suggests art in which Twitter is seamlessly integrated. I can’t help but think of the early movies coming out of Hollywood, where the camera was set still; it was simply theater brought to film. As Christi Nielsen told me, “We have to make something specific to this medium, to this space.”
2. The art involves the audience in some fashion; it is inherently a social medium. Many would disagree, but in my opinion, the most exciting social media art inspires the crowd to co-create the work in some fashion; it is inherently social. Just as the social web has opened the doors for would-be photographers, op-ed writers, and other fields traditionally restricted to those with professional training, so should social media art open the doors for would-be artists. Whether or not we want to measure success by numerical engagement is a question, I think, that’s up for debate.
3. The art is accessible beyond a “typical” art world audience while still being conceptually rich. In some sense, as Jonny Gray brought up, social media art reawakens the folk art tradition: “Folk art may have recognizable (and often recognized) practitioners, but the tradition itself blurs the line between artist and audience (I mean in situ more than when it is cultural display for the tourists’ gaze). Folk art is of and by the people.” And yet, as cultural consumers, we must apply the same critical eye to social media art that we do to contemporary fine art and continue to evaluate the work against the artist’s intent. Which leads us to my final point …
4. The bottom line: it’s all about the artist’s intent. Above all, when critiquing a social media art piece, I find the same rules apply: it’s most important to understand the artist’s intent, and how successfully she or he actualized it. But, as Joanie San Chirico suggested, the audience’s influence can alter a piece: “The artist’s intent has to be fluid and may even completely transform before the completion of the work.”
As with any new technological medium, artists like myself and the roundtable participants are coming out of the webwork to find new ways to engage these media. From Christi Nielsen’s early explorations in Second Life to Nic Rad’s socially-engaged portraiture, each individual artist finds a new and compelling way to utilize these media as tools of self-expression. And as we’ve seen, much of the current practice of social media art continues in the traditions of net.art, visual art, public art and performance art, a reflection of the different facets of mainstream social media that artists tap into.
What I find most exciting about social media art, then, is how it opens the doors to access, a subject thrown about regularly in the art world but which can mean little in the face of simple facts: most people don’t live in art capitals like New York, London, and Beijing, and even fewer receive an education in the contemporary art popular in those locales.
Artists like William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton, who made #class open to anyone with an Internet connection, and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, with its online web cam of “The Artist Is Present” (2010), are pushing a new definition of access: one that doesn’t require physical proximity.
Furthermore, social media presents a fascinating new way to extend and enhance traditional arts practices, rather than replace them. Art can be done in the offline world but made available in the online world, and vice versa. It can weave back and forth seamlessly. It’s augmented art.
Hype and Access
Of course, there’s something to be said against the hype around social media technologies; it can often feel hyperbolic, naive even, to think that any new technology can change the (art) world. A decade after eBay and Etsy turned the Internet into an international marketplace, most artists still struggle to sell their work outside the gallery system, and it’s hard to imagine many artists finding critical recognition if they don’t live in a major art center, even if their work is accessible via the Internet.
And in the social media landscape, where self-described “experts” emerge left and right to promote traditional principles of marketing, artists may feel more pressure to brand themselves, thereby manufacturing an online persona with an eye toward sales and cheap attention. The social media environment in particular can also make it easy to evaluate one’s creative worth largely by the easy metrics available on most sites.
But watching the global artistic community emerging out of social media, I can’t help but think that mainstream social media present a unique opportunity to level the playing field.
Before 2004, it would have been difficult to imagine an art collective with members from as far away as Perth, Australia to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, who hadn’t previously considered themselves artists. It certainly would have been impossible to imagine Ai Weiwei posting live updates of the aftermath of a beating he suffered in Chengdu, as he turned activism and authoritarianism into a form of art in a country kept behind the “Great Firewall.”
And Lo, There Was Much Retweeting
The “tweets,” as I’ve written before, are the new streets, giving us a rich new public landscape for exploring and expressing art to hundreds of millions and soon billions of people connected via mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, desktop PCs, and other future devices we’re only beginning to imagine.
It’s only a matter of time, I suspect, before a social media artist working largely outside established arts institutions and centers finds the same kind of success that stars like Kara Walker and Jeff Koons have found through the standard system of galleries and museums. This artist’s work would be accessible to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, co-created, funded, and promoted primarily through social media channels.
By then, of course, we may no longer think of the work as social media art, so blurry will the distinction be between our online and offline worlds. It will, perhaps, just be art.
Frontpage image caption: An Xiao’s Under the Bridge Festival project (2009)